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The 2013 Red River Valley Fair kicks off a five-day run on Tuesday, and for many the highlight will be the 8 p.m. performance Thursday night by John Conlee.
In a telephone interview with eParisExtra, the 67-year-old Conlee talked about his upcoming trip to Paris, and about life on the road — going from one performance to another in fairgrounds, clubs, casinos, stadiums and other venues.
Conlee moved to Nashville in 1971 in pursuit of a musical career, signing to ABC Records in 1976. Conlee charted for the first time in 1978 with “Rose Colored Glasses,” a No. 5 hit on the Billboard Hot Country Singles charts, as well as the title track to his 1978 debut album.
This album would go on to produce his first two No. 1 hits: “Lady Lay Down” and “Backside of Thirty.”
Conlee has recorded 29 singles throughout the years with 26 of them charting in the top 20 or better. Eight of those 26 have reached the No. 1 spot on the national country charts
eParisExtra: You are the keynote performer of our 2013 county fair on Thursday – an honor that usually falls to Gene Watson, who grew up here. Talk about your relationship with him.
Conlee: Gene and I get to work together occasionally on different shows, a couple of times a year. But we see more of each other, probably, during the Country Family Reunions show that runs on RFD TV. We’ve done several of those together. Gene’s great, you know. He’s true country, real country, and I always love working with him.
eParisExtra: You’ve been touring for how long now?
Conlee: This is the 35th year. I never really went on the road until I had the first hit with “Rose-Colored Glasses” in 1978. Until then, I had my day job in radio but I wasn’t well known. Once I had that hit under my belt, everybody knew that song, you know, and were familiar with the songs I was singing, so I wasn’t totally anonymous.
eParisExtra: One of your songs is called “Common Man,” and, you know, that’s kind of the audience you’ll be singing to in Paris.
Conlee: Great. I love that. You know, I was raised on a farm. I still operate that farm in Kentucky, and I live on another in Tennessee. You know, as I’m talking to you, I’m sitting here in work clothes and brogans. So, I’m still doing what that song, Common Man, is talking about. I spend all of my off-time, what I have of it, with my family on our farm. I enjoy it. There’s no glamour to it. Woodworking, gunsmithing, or driving a tractor require getting grease or varnish all over you. It’s dirty work, but I like it.
eParisExtra: You’ve done a number of the FarmAid concerts with Willie Nelson …
Conlee: Sure, we did the first 10 of the FarmAid concerts, I guess, and I still talk about the issue, because it’s near to my heart. I mean, there’s only so much land, there’s only so much food production that can be done, and the United States has always been at the forefront for the world, feeding the world literally. So I care about the issue deeply, and you know, Farm Aid was created to call attention to the wrong direction that we felt the nation was going in. I still feel we can do a whole lot of things a whole lot better.
eParisExtra: Is this your first time to Paris?
Conlee: No, we’ve been there before. Don’t ask me when. People ask me all the time, you know. They come up to me in the autograph line sometime and say, “Now, I saw you at such and such place, at such and such show,” and I say “Yeah, how long ago?” And they say 25 years ago, and they want to know if I remember it? No, I’m afraid not. (Laughing.)
eParisExtra: Yours sounds like a glamorous life.
Conlee: It sounds glamorous. A lot of people have the impression that it’s a party time, all the time, and I guess for some, they try to make it that way. I never did. We’re in an Eagle bus. I’ve been in a bus my whole career. That’s the best way to get six, seven people around all the time. So we do 98 to 99 percent of what we do, in a bus. You know, whenever I go on the road, I do a lot of my own driving. I always take the first shift. We almost always leave at night, and so I’m up all night and down in the day when I’m on the road, and just the reverse of that when I come back to the farm (in Tennessee). It’s like any other thing. It’s a job with its own hours and its own parameters, and it is fun to be on stage and do those songs. But when you get down to it, you know, you’re on stage for an hour and a half, something like that, and you’ve spent 24 getting there and 24 getting back. You don’t spend as much time doing the actual music as a lot of people think. When I’m driving, I listen to a lot of radio — you know, a lot of the old-time radio, the comedy stuff, some of the old drama, and so forth. I love that. I enjoy listening to shows like the old Jack Benny Show and Fibber McGee and Molly. I also like Dragnet, some of those old shows. I’m not much on suspense shows as much as the old comedies, and westerns like Gunsmoke. You know, I grew up watching Gunsmoke on TV.
eParisExtra: You and your band are in Paris on Thursday, in Arlington on Friday and in Bryan on Saturday.
Conlee: Correct. And we do that most of the time. We most always, you know, seldom ever stay all night in one place. Sometimes it works out, if we’re close enough to the next show. But usually we do a show, pack up, leave, go to the next town, sleep a little bit, get up and unpack, do it again, and so forth. That’s sort of the way it works for most people.
eParisExtra: How many performances a year do you play?
Conlee: Probably half as many as I used to. The most I ever did show-wise was maybe 120, 130 in a year’s time. We now do about 60, about half what we used to do. We go somewhere just about every weekend. But we still work about as much as I want to. The 120 kept me really busy, and 60 is kind of a nice pace.
eParisExtra: How do you keep from losing your voice, singing night after night?
Conlee: Well, for me, it can happen as a result of a cold or, you know, some kind of bronchitis, something like that. But I don’t lose it, any more, from the actual singing, although there was a time when I did. Really, the big reason, the big difference, is the monitor system. In the old days, we used the old floor monitors. And some people still use them, I don’t. I’ve been using in-ear monitor system for, I don’t know, a number of years now, since they started doing it. And that really has saved my voice a lot. You don’t have to sing as hard because, unlike the old speaker system, you can hear what you need to hear. Used to, you could get in a club or somewhere that was real loud, and not be able to hear what you needed to hear, and the result of that is you would over-sing, sing too hard, lose your voice, and then, you know, you could be dead in the water the next night. So, other than getting ill, getting sick, I don’t have any trouble with that at all anymore.
eParisExtra: What do you hear in your ear — the other members of your band?
Conlee: Yes, you can put in your mix, you can control what goes in, and how loud it is. In other words, when I’m listening, I can hear just enough of my voice to tell what I’m doing, and then all I need to hear after that is mostly the keyboard, a little bit of guitar, a little bit of background, and, you know, I get the drums and the bass just around, outside of the ear monitors. Almost everybody uses them now. There are very few people still using the floor system — some of the old holdouts that just have not gotten used to the in-ear, that haven’t used it long enough. But boy, I mean, it’s been a blessing for me. When you see the awards shows, the TV shows, you see almost everybody singing, using the in-ear monitors. It’s like a hearing aid stuck in your ear, that’s what they look like.
eParisExtra: How much has equipment in general improved over the past 35 years?
Conlee: Well, it’s always changing. I don’t know that it improves. It’s funny — everybody went to the digital world and all that, which is great. And now there are some people who will want the old vinyl records. So there are people that produce a certain amount of the old vinyl records, just to kind of recapture that old sound. And a lot of new equipment we use is designed to sound like the old stuff. It’s just kind of funny, you know, how things cycle around. But, yeah, there is a lot of convenience in the digital age, no doubt about that.
By Charles Richards, eParisExtra
Biography: John Conlee was born Aug. 11, 1946, on a 250-acre tobacco farm in Versailles, Ky. By the age of 10, he had begun singing and playing guitar, and later sang tenor in a barbershop quartet. He did not immediately take up a musical career, instead becoming a licensed mortician and later a disc jockey at radio station WLAC.
Following ABC’s merger with MCA Records, he released his 1979 album Forever on MCA. Its singles, “Before My Time” and “Baby, You’re Something,” respectively reached No. 2 and No. 7. A second MCA release, Friday Night Blues, produced two more No. 2 hits in the title track and “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” followed by the No. 12 “What I Had with You.” 1981′s With Love accounted for yet another No. 2 in “Miss Emily’s Picture.”
Conlee has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1981.
Conlee’s 1982 album Busted was led off by a cover of the Harlan Howard song of the same name. The album’s last single, “Common Man,” returned him to the top of the charts in 1983. Three more No. 1 hits came from In My Eyes: the Kix Brooks co-write “I’m Only in It for the Love,” the title track, and “As Long as I’m Rockin’ with You.” MCA released a Greatest Hits album later in 1983.
Blue Highway in 1984, his last studio album for MCA, produced a No. 2 in “Years After You.” A year later, a second Greatest Hits package produced his last MCA single in the No. 5 “Old School” before he moved to Columbia Records. His first Columbia release, Harmony, gave him his last No. 1 hit in “Got My Heart Set on You” in 1986.
A second and final album for Columbia, American Faces, took him into the Top 10 for the last time with “Domestic Life,” followed by his last Top 40 at No. 11, “Mama’s Rockin’ Chair.” From there, Conlee moved to 16th Avenue Records, releasing “Fellow Travelers.”
Among the more familiar of his songs to country music fans: